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Podcast > Thursday, 6 January 2011 12:32:20 EST

Dumbass Podcast #3: The Importance Of Definitions

Keywords: statistics, concern about children, nutrition, study, bad reporting, aliens, ancient alien theory, conspiracy, historical, book

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In this episode of The Dumbasses Guide To Knowledge podcast, I do a little reflecting on my experience since creating this podcast, and I do some analysis on my interview with Karl Mamer on his podcast, The Conspiracy Skeptic.  Then I read an article I wrote all about definitions and how they can be misapplied.  Finally, I start up the Dumbass Book Club, and I take a look at visitor comments.

Links Mentioned In The Show:
The Conspiracy Skeptic Podcast
Skeptic North
The IALLS Literacy Test
The Audible 14 Day Trial Deal
The Invisible Gorilla Audiobook
The Ancient Flight Comments Section
Star Wars And Anomaly Hunting
Melody's Blog
Jonathan Coulton's Music

I hope you guys enjoy the podcast!  Here's the transcript:

Welcome to the third episode of the Dumbasses Guide To Knowledge.  Did you miss me?  I had a wonderful and eventful holiday season, and I hope you all enjoyed yourselves as well.  My first two episodes were kind of testing the waters.  In the first I told you a little bit about myself and why I started doing this, and in the second I modified and read one of my articles on Ancient Aliens.  In this episode, I'm looking forward to playing around a little more and having some additional fun.  So in addition to reading one of my articles this time, I'll open up with a little update and analysis, and I'll end by looking at some visitor's emails and comments.

There were some surprises for me in releasing a podcast.  First of all, I expected only a handful of downloads, maybe a couple of dozen, and honestly I would have been happy with that.  I don't need a huge audience in order to stand on this soap box, I'm happy enough just talking to a small group of interested strangers.  But as I'm writing this, both my episodes together have racked up a total of over 1000 downloads, and I've got about 52 subscribers.  Wonderful!  So, how come none of you slackers have written me a glowing review on iTunes?  Honestly!  I realize that we're just starting our relationship here, and I know that it's not exclusive.  Sources tell me that you're seeing other podcasts, don't bother denying it.  We have an open relationship, and that's completely fine.... but you could at least put an effort into letting me know that you care!  I'm doing my part in this relationship, and I hope you'll step up to the plate as well.

Another surprise was in the responses I've received.  I've had no less than 5 offers to be my co-host.  I realize that the impetus for this is that people just want to be part of a podcast without having to do a lot of work, and as far as motivations go, that seems about as reasonable to me as any other.  The big argument that has been made in favour of me choosing a co-host is that a good podcast should have 2 or more people to play off of each other.  It's certainly the case that the most popular podcasts I know of are either a panel discussion or are made up of two co-hosts chatting together.  It's an interesting idea, and something I will continue to consider, but I'm not really interested in following any strict formula for podcast success.  I'm only trying to have fun here.  Like I said, I'd be happy enough if there were only a handful of you listening to me right now.  At the moment, it doesn't feel right to me to have a co-host, but I'm planning on experimenting with new ideas, and I may eventually decide that I want somebody else involved after all.

The discussion format does have it's advantages.  Many of you may know what happened just over a week ago, specifically that I was a guest on Karl Mamer's podcast, iKarly!   No, wait, that's not right... Sorry, the name of the podcast is The Conspiracy Skeptic.  I had pretty a good time, but there are a few things that I want to clarify and comment on.  So I'm going to do a little post game analysis here, and the first things I want to point out are a couple of mistakes that I made.  That's not unexpected, I've already told you all that I'm a dumbass.  But I'm a dumbass who tries to correct himself wherever possible.  For example, when talking about ancient Sanskrit texts, I said:

You see on the documentary that there are ancient Sanskrit documents from 6,000 years ago telling us of these Vimanas and everything and how they work and then you do the research and you say to yourself "hold on a second, Sanskrit didn't exist 6,000 years ago."

See, this is what I sound like when I try to talk off the cuff with a co-host.  I stumble all over my words and am more likely to make mistakes.  Still think I should go for that kind of format?

Anyway, I'm technically correct here that Sanskrit didn't exist 6,000 years ago.  The claim made in the documentary, though, was that these Sanskrit documents dated to 6,000 BC, not "years ago".  That makes it about 8,000 years ago, and Sanskrit was certainly a long way from being formulated that far back.  I covered this claim in my second article on Ancient Aliens, and I actually talked about how easy it was to make mistakes just like this.  My little blunder here is a pretty good illustration of exactly what I was talking about.

My other mistake was that I made a couple of references to aliens coming down in vimanas, and I refered to a specific type of vimana as a Vaimanika Shaastra

It would be awesome if the aliens were actually travelling around in a Vaimanika Shaastra

Well, I goofed there.  As I'd mentioned earlier, the Vaimanika Shaastra is the specific book describing the vimanas that the documentary was claiming to date from 6,000 BC.   What I'd meant to refer to was the Shakuna Vimana, which I'd described earlier in the episode.  It's a wonderful looking device, check the show transcript to have a look at it.

It's actually my favourite of the vimanas, as I mentioned to Karl:

Me: My favourite is the Shakuna Vimana.
Karl: *LAUGHTER*
Me: Have you seen the picture of the Shakuna Vimana?
Karl: No, no, what's it look like?


Hey, hold on a second here Karl... I showed this image in my second article on Ancient Aliens.    I checked my records and you invited me on your podcast back in May, shortly after I finished my second article.  Are you telling me that you didn't even bother to read my articles before inviting me on?

I've been letting you know whenever I completed a new Ancient Aliens article thinking that you were interested, at least for the purpose of having me on your show, but now I guess I find out the truth!  Did you read *anything* that I wrote on the subject?

One of your blog posts.... one of the episodes they were building little scale models of what they were saying were almost model airplanes.... and you devote a lot of time in your blog to looking at these airplane-like things they found.

Okay, so you either just read my first blog entry on the subject, or you quickly listened to my first podcast.  I guess I didn't need to do all that extra research in order to bring up new information that wasn't in any of my articles.  I could have just regurgitated the stuff that I'd already written and you wouldn't have known the difference!

Bastard!

That's right, I called you a bastard!  Take that Karl, even though you've been nothing but kind to me and I had a great time talking to you! (See, this is where I get to find out if Karl's paying any attention at all.  I'll let you know if he sends me an indignant email.)

In any case, there was one more question that Karl asked that got me thinking:

What's one piece of positive feedback and one piece of negative feedback that sort of sticks out?

I was kind of unprepared for that question, and I did the best I could to answer it without spending a whole lot of extra time searching through my messages for particularly interesting examples.  But the fact is that I've gotten quite a lot of interesting email and comments, and I think it would be fun to look through them with you guys.  So here's what I'm going to do:  I'll read out my selected article for this podcast, and then at the end I'll read off some selected emails and comments and talk about what they have to say. 

One other thing that Karl asked me was whether I wanted to plug my services.  I was also unprepared for this question, so I just gave a general statement to contact me if you're looking for a writer or a web programmer.   What I should have mentioned is that my email address is *EMAIL*.  I created my website personally, and I'm always making custom modifications to the code.  If you like what you see, and want me to create something for you, send me a note and we'll figure out what I can do for you.  I also do freelance writing, and if you're looking for somebody to write articles for you, then please consider me for the job.  I'm about to read one of my articles, and if you like my writing and want to pay me to write for you, then send me an email.  The address, again, is *EMAIL*

I wrote the article that I've chosen to read for this episode back in January of 2010, just about a year ago when I'd just barely started blogging.  Hey, on the 6th my blog will be a year old, how about that?  Anyway, I wrote this article on the 22nd of January for the Canadian skeptical blog collaboration Skeptic North.  I'd convinced Steve Thoms, who runs the website, to allow me to write a guest post.  I wrote the article, and Steve loved it.  I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out as well.  What I wanted to convey with this article is that opportunities for critical thinking are all over the place, and that if you keep your eyes open you can find many fascinating claims that can cause you to ask "Wait, is that true?  How do they know that?"

In the article I examine two such claims that I've run across, and I talk about where my research of these claims took me.  It was a fun experience.  I just might have to convince Steve to let me write some more stuff for him.  In any case, here's the article, entitled The Importance Of Definitions:


How we define a social problem is vitally important for any effort we make to understand it.  Advocacy groups naturally feel that their issues should blip prominently on our radar screens.  Thus are we bombarded with calculations and claims from all directions aiming to convince us that certain problems are dire enough to warrant our attention.

And, of course, for the most part there is valid reason for concern.  But sometimes, even with the best of intentions, advocacy groups can find themselves focusing more on their message than the facts.  They make choices in how they define a problem that do not correspond well with the way it's typified.  Usually there's no malice involved, just sloppy handling of the facts.

I would like to share with you two statistics I came across where the numbers just didn't add up.  In both cases, the advocacy groups were working towards admirable goals, and their efforts should not be belittled.  However, the claims themselves seemed to be off the mark.  An exploration of exactly how they went wrong can help us to identify other times when definitions can mislead us.


Are Our High School Students Chronically Under Nourished?

A while back I found a small plastic card displayed in a supermarket which advanced an interesting claim:

62% Of Secondary School Students Don't Eat Breakfast On A Daily 
Basis

The number stopped me in my tracks.  What could they possibly mean by that?  The group making the claim was supporting a school breakfast program, in which underprivileged students are provided with a free breakfast.  Surely this number can't mean what it seems to at first glance: that 62% of Canadian students are from families in such dire straits that they're unable to provide breakfast for their children.  The poverty rate is nowhere near that high, so what's going on here?

Perhaps they mean that 62% of students skip breakfast on occasion, such as when they're running late.  That still seems high, but it makes a little more sense.  The problem is that it's a substantially different kind of claim.  If that's the case, then rather than supporting students in financial need, you're instead being asked to support students who occasionally sleep in too late.  Of course, a school supplied breakfast would still benefit those students, but would people still feel that the cause was as urgent if the problem was portrayed to them in that way?

I decided that I had to investigate this claim, and figure out where it came from.  The problem was that while numerous websites repeated the claim, none actually gave it's source.  This was starting to look suspiciously like a figure that had been repeated by word of mouth, and just casually accepted without question.  Once an advocacy group accepts a statistic this way, they become the authoritative source for the statistic and nobody bothers to look further and find out where the statistic actually came from.

I finally managed to find a reference that listed the source as the Massachusetts General Hospital.  This allowed me to track down the original study, and it turned out to be completely different from what I'd imagined.  Massachusetts General Hospital, in association with Harvard Medical School, performed a study to determine how participation in school breakfast programs relates to academic performance.  One of the figures mentioned in this study was that 62% of students "ate a school-supplied breakfast rarely or never".  This study never said that these students didn't eat breakfast at all, just that they didn't get their breakfast from the school.  Presumably, the vast majority of those students had a full breakfast at home.

This is what sociologist Joel Best, author of the "Damned Lies and Statistics" books, calls a "Mutant Statistic".  Obviously, this study would have been of interest to advocates of school breakfast programs.  It seems that somebody saw the number, and misunderstood or misremembered it's intent.  That person passed the information on to colleagues, and eventually it became common, unquestioned knowledge.  Even though on the face of it, the statistic doesn't make much sense, when people are presented with an authoritative sounding number, they tend to accept it uncritically.


Is Canada Experiencing A Literacy Crisis?

According to a claim that I found online, it is.  It states that almost half of all Canadians lack the basic literacy skills necessary in order to get along in the world.

42% Of Canadian Adults Lack Basic Literacy 
Skills

This claim is stated in much clearer terms than the last one.  The problem is that the number seriously stretches credulity.  The big question here is: how exactly are they defining and measuring "basic literacy skills"?

This statistic comes from a report based on the International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey(IALLS).  It turns out that what they're talking about is "Prose Literacy", which is an attempt to measure not specifically whether people have the ability to read and write, but instead attempting to measure how well they're able to do so.  There are 5 categories of literacy in their definition, category 1 is the lowest.  A test was given to a sample of Canadians, and the 42% result is based on adding up the percent of those who scored in categories 1 and 2.

It seems, though, that the common convention is to only apply the label of "below basic" prose literacy skills to those whose test results place them in category 1.    If you limit this statistic to only those who fit category 1, the number drops to 14.6%.  People whose tests place them in category 2, according to the description, are perfectly able to read and write at a basic level, but may have trouble with challenges such as learning new job skills.  To me, it doesn't seem like this definition warrants the description "lacks basic literacy skills".

Obviously the people who tabulated this statistic feel differently.  They believe that anything below category 3 is inadequate for functioning in today's world.  Perhaps there's some room for argument, but what's clear is that they're using a non standard definition of "basic literacy skills" which makes the statistic seem much more alarming than it would otherwise be. 

And there has been further analysis done on these numbers.  The University of British Columbia released a brief on the subject which notes that most of the people who were found to have major difficulties reading in this test were, in fact, non native English speakers.  The biggest problem in prose literacy may be in how well we're teaching immigrants English as a second language.  While this is a concern, I don't believe most people would classify it as a "literacy crisis".


What's The Moral Of The Story?


Obviously, I'm not trying to discredit any organization here.  I think that school breakfast programs are a wonderful thing.  And as for the literacy claim, it was being used to bolster support for a program providing needy schools with new books.  As an avid reader, this program has my full endorsement.

But I don't think we should be advocating any cause, no matter how worthy, with statistics that mislead the public.  When your definitions don't correspond well with how you're audience typifies the problem, then I believe you've done your audience a disservice.


That's where the article ends on Skeptic North, I was restricted in how long my article could be so I didn't get to point out everything that I'd have liked to.  However, in my blog and on my podcast I can take as much space as I'd like, so there are a few extra comments that I'd like to make about these subjects.

Regarding the school breakfast program, there are some more interesting aspects to consider.  First of all, the study was done in the States.  When the statistic is quoted, though, it's often specified that it's Canadian students who are missing breakfast.  Obviously, we don't want to just accept numbers from other countries as perfectly indicative of how our country is doing, this is part of the lack of attention to detail shown in the spreading of this statistic.

But in addition, the purpose of this study never even involved finding a representative sample of American students at all.  This study chose inner-city schools, and specifically singled out children from low income families.  Even if the statistic as it was worded was accurate, you still wouldn't be able to conclude that this number applied to the majority of students.

Even low income families are usually able to feed their children.  Only 38% of the students in the sample answered that they used the school breakfast program always, often, or sometimes.  One presumes that this number would be much lower when applied to a representative sample of students even just from the inner city schools.

And regarding the literacy claim, doesn't it seem like there's a huge intellectual disconnect going on among people who believe that this number is indicative of a "literacy crisis"?  They say that anything below category 3 is inadequate for functioning in today's world, which makes up 42% of the population.  But the poverty rate is nowhere near 42% even in these strained economic times.  Obviously most of these people actually are getting along and functioning in today's world.

And the brief from the University of British Columbia backs that up.  When questioned, people who scored in category 2 didn't feel like they were at a huge disadvantage in life, and thought that they got along perfectly well.  This statistic really assumes a definition of "basic literacy skills" that the evidence indicates isn't really basic to functioning in society at all.  The statistic just doesn't have any teeth, there's no sign of the kind of malfunction in society that it suggests.

Obviously I think it's a good idea for people to aim for higher literacy skills and to achieve a score beyond category 2.  But just as obviously, scoring in category 3 or beyond is not absolutely necessary in order to lead a productive life.

By the way, I've got a link that you can use to take the test yourself.  I'll put it in the show transcript:

http://www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Reports/LiteracySelfAssessment/

I took the test.  My main disappointment was that it didn't tell me what questions I got wrong.  I was very confident in almost all of my answers, but I only got 100% in one small sub category "use of pattern and relationships -> calculate -> formulae".

It would be nice if the way the tests were scored was transparent and available online.   One question that kind of left me scratching my head as to it's purpose was when they asked me to look at the nutritional information for three different food products and guess which one was made of chicken.  They didn't provide any clues, so it seems to me that this question was more a test of a person's pre-existing knowledge, and had nothing to do with literacy skills at all.

If anybody's interested, I scored a level 4 in prose literacy, a level 3 in document literacy, and a level 5 in numeracy.

In the end, I was supplied with a bewildering array of results from numerous sub-categories, which must have been a labour intensive undertaking to design and program.  I have my doubts about how much these tiny slices of meaning can possibly tell me about myself and my abilities.  But over all I'm sure the test gives at least a rough idea of a person's literacy level.

Even so, after taking the test, I find myself even more doubtful that it's results can be used to make this kind of claim about the literacy levels in Canada.


Take the test yourself and you can let me know what you think.  I'm going to get to some of my favourite blog comments in just a minute, but first, I've just been informed as I'm putting this episode together that Audible has finally approved me to start promoting them in my podcast.  So I'd like to open up a new segment: The Dumbass Book Club.

I'm partnering with Audible for the Dumbass Book Club because I've been an Audible member for years, and I'm a really big fan of their system.  I've tried other online audiobook retailers, and Audible is the one that I keep on going back to.  Audiobooks are very handy for listening to while I'm doing house work or running errands, or when I'd like to do some reading but my eyes are a little strained.

Audible has over 85,000 titles available, and it is compatible with the Apple iPod and over 500 other MP3 players.  Right now you can get a special 14 day trial offer including 1 credit that you can use to download a free audiobook.  This offer isn't available on the audible.com homepage.  To take advantage of this offer, go to audibletrial.com/dumbassguide

Here's a small tip for new Audible members: keep visiting the site to look for special sales.  Audible selectively discounts books to sell to members on a fairly regular basis.  You can often get audiobooks for as low as around five dollars if you keep your eyes open.

Today's book in the Dumbass book club is The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  Chabris and Simons are the researchers who created of one of the most amazing experiments in psychology ever done.  If you haven't already been exposed to it, I'll post a video on the show page that should help bring you up to speed.  I highly recommend giving it a look.



The Invisible Gorilla is a book all about how our brains actually perceive, remember, and pay attention to a lot less than we intuitively think that they do.  We so often rush to judgement thinking "How could that person have made that mistake?", but the truth is that we're just as capable of making those very same mistakes.  We believe that our minds are a lot more capable than they really are, but it's just an illusion.  The experiments mentioned in this book are some of the coolest and most counter intuitive psychological studies that you will ever hear about.

If you're already an Audible member, I'll provide a direct link to The Invisible Gorilla on my website that you can use, and it will let Audible know that I sent you:

Link To The Invisible Gorilla Audiobook

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.  If you do, write in and let me know, I just might read your comment in my next podcast, like I'm about to do right now.  Most of the comments I'm looking at today relate to the topic of my last podcast about the Saqqara Bird and the artifacts from Colombia.  I've received many comments on this, and I'll post a link to them in the transcript.  The negative comments are always fun, especially the ones where they don't seem to have even read the article.  Here's one from somebody calling himself.... well... he spells it CBR900RR, and he entitles his comment "Laugh Now!", but you can feel free to wait until after I read his comment to start giggling:

It's as if you're entirely dismissing the possibility of these types of systems being achieved. Laugh now, but one day soon enough this technology will be emplemented[SIC]. I hope it happens while you're around, so you can say "dang, I guess I was wrong"

The interesting thing here, as those of you who listened to my last podcast know, is that the only technology that I even talked about in that article was gliders and propeller planes.  Somehow our Mr. CBR900RR gets the idea that I'm denying that these technologies are possible?

Another interesting comment where it was obvious that the person hasn't read my article was written by somebody calling himself Dan, and it reads, in part, as follows:

There's nothing wrong with skeptisism[SIC], but you and other "debunkers" have an almost predatory thirst to attack anything considered paranormal, fringe, etc. I'm not making a personal attack, I just think you are a product of successful programming. Live and let live. Don't insult. I don't know why you and professional skeptics have to defend your viewpoints as if it a partisan issue.

I'm very confused by the suggestion that I should avoid using insults.  If anybody can find a single insult that I used in that article, I would be very gratified if it could be pointed out to me.  I don't see anything I do as "attacking" or turning my viewpoints into a "partisan issue".  I just look at claims and evidence, and if they're not adequate, I will point that out.  I might make some light fun of bad evidence and poor logic, but I don't see how anything I've written could be considered some sort of rabid attack.

As for calling me a debunker... well, I suppose it's true that when claims are bunk and I point that out, then I am, in fact, "debunking".  I do, in fact, debunk, so you could make the argument that I'm a "debunker".  But it's a little bit of an uncomfortable term for those of us who examine these types of claims, because it suggests that we set out specifically with the purpose of discrediting them.  I may have my personal opinions when I start doing some research on a claim, but I try to be as objective as possible.  My main focus is on the evidence, and my goal is to find the truth.  I always hope to be fair in my analysis.  If I fall short of that goal, for example if I misrepresent other people's arguments or use faulty logic, then I would very much appreciate being informed of it.

But back to Dan's rant.  Further on in his comment he says:

When ideas are squashed so hastily, it suggests prejudice, or supression to me. You and other "mainstreamers" have your opinion, and don't want to be bothered by evidence.

More and more it seems that this guy just hasn't bothered to read my article.  If he had, he would have known that the evidence is all I talked about.  Saying that I don't want to be bothered by evidence is so absurd that it's hard to know where to start.  How do you correct somebody who firmly believes that up is down and black is white?

I also got into a very interesting exchange with somebody calling himself "Average Joe", who said that he found the tone of my articles

unnecessarily cynical and dismissive - and sadly, bordering on arrogant.

I suppose my "tone" is in the ear of the beholder, but I certainly hope that his opinion about how I sound is a minority one.  I don't consider myself to be cynical or arrogant, and I always try to give any evidence a fair hearing instead of just dismissing it out of hand.

My discussion with Average Joe is too long to go into here, so if you're interested you can look in the comment section.  His argument seemed to be that I somehow wasn't giving the show a fair shake... but he never made a coherent argument about where exactly I went too far in my analysis or pointed out anything that I got wrong.

They never point out anything that I got wrong.  It would be nice to have opponents who actually challenge me on the facts, but the thing is that as far as I can see, these guys don't have any facts that could challenge anything I've written.  And if somebody did manage to show me something I got wrong, you can bet that I'd be the first to admit it and correct myself.  I don't want to spread false information, even if that information backs up an argument that I'm making.

In the absence of any facts to dispute my arguments, people who disagree with me seem to have little else to go on other than accusing me of having a bad attitude.  It's either that or they agree with what I've said in the article, but they believe that there's still valid evidence out there that I haven't looked at yet.  Well, there are lots of Ancient Aliens claims that I haven't looked at yet.  There's so much of this stuff out there that it would take a very long time to seriously look at it all.  Ancient Alien theorists have the luxury of practically limitless claims to fall back on if somebody shows their favourite ones to be wrong.  They don't feel the need to actually question any of their assumptions or subject their claims to any actual scrutiny and research.  That's left up to dumbasses like me, and it takes a lot of time and effort.

I've been looking at the most common claims, especially the ones made by the Ancient Aliens Evidence show.  This is supposed to be their very best evidence that aliens have visited us in the ancient past, but I have yet to encounter a single claim that stands up to even my modest level of dumbass scrutiny.  I personally doubt that any of the claims that I haven't covered yet are any better, but even so I will never just dismiss a claim out of hand without first taking a good look at the evidence.

One interesting comment came from Reddit, where a user calling himself RomeoWhiskey seemed to generally agree with what I had to say, but disagreed with me on the subjective matter of whether the Colombian artifacts looked like fighter jets.  He said (in part) regarding the Golden Flyer:

it does clearly look basically like a jet aircraft.

Well, certainly I agree that it's form has a very general resemblance to an airplane.  I admitted as much in my article.  I'm kind of reminded of an America's Funniest Home Videos clip where a kid had found his mother's maxi pads and was sticking them up all over the place.  When his mother asked him what he was doing, he innocently told her that he was playing with the airplane stickers.

The thing about these artifacts is that the claim made in the documentary was that they are

eerily reminiscent of modern day fighter jets

Look at 'im go!  It's a bird... it's a jet plane.... no, it's an alien going for a joy ride in a propeller plane!  You don't see that every day.

I happen to own a figurine of a modern day fighter jet, and I've taken a picture of it in a similar angle to a picture of the so called Golden Flyer.  I've put them together for comparison, and you can take a look at the image in the show transcript:

Golden Flyer Compared To Jet

It seems to me that the description of "eerily reminiscent" just doesn't hold up.  When you compare the Golden Flyer to an object that's actually meant to represent a modern day fighter jet, the difference is night and day.

In any case, the disagreements I get are certainly very interesting to look at, but you shouldn't get the idea that they're representative of the comments I receive in general.  In fact, the majority of comments on my blog are very positive.  Sometimes the commenter is even aggressively on my side, such as in this comment by Markus0012:

Were do all you freaks come from? Yes I am insulting you: you who wish to believe this nonsense. Don't you have the intelligence to analyze the leaps in logic needed to justify these theories?  Can't you yourselves critically evaluate the show as Dumbass has done. He so easily pokes craters in their alien arguments that you should be embarrassed to try and refute him.

Wow!  That's a little more aggressive than I'm generally comfortable with, but I definitely appreciate the vote of confidence in my abilities.  And I can certainly sympathise with his frustration.  But just for the record, I hope anybody looking to engage somebody in the comment sections of my blog will stick to attacking claims, not people.  I'm not angry though - Markus0012, your passion is very much appreciated!   Just try taking enough of a deep breath in the future to avoid calling people freaks.

On the 25th I received a couple of very interesting comments to this thread, and I consider them to be wonderful Christmas gifts.  One is by a user named Gabe, who provided me with some fascinating extra information to consider regarding the difference between jet airplanes and rockets, and how jets are useless for space travel and must be designed specifically for the atmosphere they will be flying in.  This makes it even less likely that the aliens were fooling around with this kind of technology if they ever visited the Earth in our distant past.  Gabe also wrote more very informative comments on my other Ancient Aliens articles, and I very much appreciate all the extra information.

The other comment I received was from a user named "Curious", who it seems doesn't completely agree with me, but was very polite and asked some interesting questions so I'm very happy that he or she decided to stop by.  This will give me the chance to talk about a couple of interesting issues about knowledge and critical thinking.

Curious first asks some questions regarding some claimed anomalies:

Why did a highly organized very efficient quite successful German Heads of State in WWII seek and search for ancient artifacts and wild esoteric objects? Is this seeking a lie or overblown, or was it just a strange coincidence? If so what about the founding fathers of the united states and bizarre coincidences of the layout of washington d.c., and great seal and dollar bill. Once again are these just overblown coincidence? The main question is why do these things exist amongst others beyond just lunatics if they in fact did any of these things.

This is a good illustration of what I was talking about regarding all the great number of claims that Ancient Alien theorists have to fall back on.  I've personally heard that Hitler made some unreasonable demands on German science during his reign which kind of made the German scientists a laughingstock to the rest of the world.  I haven't done research on the details, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did something weird with some ancient artifacts.  I don't believe that Hitler ever advocated the Ancient Aliens theory though, at least not as far as I know. 

I know absolutely nothing about these claims surrounding the founding fathers, the layout of Washington, and the dollar bill.  That seems like it might be something interesting to figure out for a future article.  For now the main question I want to focus on is the question Curious asks of why do these anomalies exist if there's nothing to them.

Well, the fact is that anomalies happen.  When you just go looking for any kind of correlation without having a concrete idea of what you're looking for, you're bound to find anomalies.  This is called anomaly hunting, and it's the primary way that people mislead themselves into believing that they're on to some kind of hidden truth.  This is hard for most people to accept, but just because you see some sort of pattern doesn't mean that a meaningful pattern actually exists.  Randomness itself tends to form what looks like patterns to our eyes, but it's an illusion.  That bunny you see in the clouds, for example, doesn't require some invisible artist in order to explain it.  It's just random, and in a few minutes it will change into another shape.

There's an article that I linked to in an earlier blog post which nicely illustrates how anomaly hunting works by applying it to Star Wars.  We all know how the story of Star Wars actually played out, but if you go anomaly hunting you can pick and choose facts that, when presented, make the argument that the destruction of the Death Star was actually an inside job.  It's great stuff!

Anyway, Curious continues:

Why are unknown mysteries of the past often dubiously claimed to be something simpler and validated with ocam's razor, if by the same standard i was to apply the creation of intelligent beings only being replicated so far by other intelligent beings. . then how do we accept highly intelligent life from primordial soup, if the simplest solution could be just that . . perhaps they should have been created by other intelligent beings.

This is the perfect opportunity for me to talk about Occam's Razor and how it's applied.    Occam's Razor is not a hard and fast law of the universe, but a useful rule of thumb for making logical inferences.  Most people understand it to say that the simplest answer is usually the best one - the Keep It Simple Stupid principle.  The problem with thinking about it that way, though, is that different people will have different ideas about what the simplest explanation actually is.  If you've read my most recent Ancient Aliens article on stone cutting, you'll remember that the mining engineer Michael Dunn invoked the simplicity of his explanation as a reason to believe in it.

The problem is that his explanation involved alien technology melting down stones in order to form them into bricks.  Now, certainly that's a simpler process for the builders of Machu Picchu, and it's a simpler explanation for Michael Dunn himself to actually put out there.  After all, it doesn't take much effort to just say "Aliens Did It!".  But is this the kind of simplicity we're looking for when using Occam's Razor?  Well... no.

What we actually mean by the "simplest explanation" when using Occam's Razor is the explanation that requires the fewest new assumptions.  Michael Dunn's explanation for the building of Machu Picchu involves one tremendously monumental new assumption, namely the use of alien technology capable of melting large numbers of granite stones and pouring them into molds.  All we have to go on about this supposed technology is one man's speculation, and if you're going to use Occam's Razor, you can't solve one unknown by referencing another unknown.

So to get back to the question Curious asked, the reason we accept that life began in some kind of primordial soup is because it's the explanation that requires the fewest new assumptions.  We know that the early Earth was replete with the raw ingredients for making life, and we know that natural processes can form structures that may be the precursors to life.  Scientists don't yet know the exact process by which life could have fully come about, but then, it's not something that they pretend to know all the answers on.

You can't use Occam's Razor to simply conclude that "Aliens Did It!", because the aliens are a completely unknown entity, and they represent an extremely large and complicating assumption.  It's using one unknown in order to solve another unknown.  It doesn't really leave you with a simpler explanation, it just replaces your current questions with an even greater mystery.

The rest of Curious' post is basically an argument that we should keep an open mind because scientific results are often counter-intuitive.  I more or less agree on this.  We shouldn't just dismiss ideas completely out of hand.  But on the other hand, we shouldn't just accept ideas uncritically either.  In any case, I'm very happy that Curious decided to stop by.

A few days ago I received a comment from a user named Melody who came across my article on stone cutting while looking for information on a specific ancient stone.  She says:

Fascinating article. I wonder if you could help me with something. I've been looking for ages for a picture or article of a huge, upside-down balancing rock in, I think, S. America, but no luck. Have you heard of it, too?

I don't know about any such rock, but I thought it might be a good idea to put the question out there and see if any of my listeners know about this rock.  If you have any clue about the rock that Melody's talking about, her URL is pacificmelody.wordpress.com - and send me a picture as well to *EMAIL*.  It sounds like an interesting object. 

I'll end my little email/comments segment self-servingly with a couple of very positive ego-stroking comments that I received.  The following is by a user calling himself Iocan who entitled his comment "Finally":

I'm really glad to see someone debunking this show. Each time I see it I keep thinking that the show is doing the public a disservice and that it's an insult to those in the field of archaeology. It's refreshing to see someone challenging the ignorance that has become so pervasive these days. Keep up the good work!

Awesome!  It's very gratifying for me to see that my hard work is actually appreciated.  Thanks for writing in Iocan!

I also received a very long comment from a user calling himself Casper Kelly, who entitled his comment "I Love Your Website" and wrote in part:

Before I found your blog, I felt like I was the only sane person left in America (not sure which country you are from since I've only begun to read this blog)! Anyway, I want to thank you for putting into written word what I have been preaching to my friends and family for the longest time. Not only is this blog entertaining, but it's educational, too! I've learned more reading your blog and checking your sources than I have learned watching anything on the History Channel since 2005. Consider your website bookmarked. I can't wait to read the rest of your website. Please don't ever stop writing articles.

Well my goodness!  Casper, after reading your comment my head can barely fit through the doors of my apartment!    In any case, it's wonderful to know that I've had this kind of effect on people, and as long as there are people who appreciate what I have to say, I have no intention of quitting.  I try to update my blog on average once or twice a week.  Sometimes I'll go for a couple of weeks without posting, and I'll try to make up for it later.  I don't have a set schedule, but I've been running this blog for about a year now and I think I've managed to keep up a fair pace.

Anyway, keep the comments coming in, either to my comment section or send me an email at *EMAIL*.  If you write me something interesting, I might just read it out on my next podcast.  Just for fun, I might even take requests for advice that have nothing to do with anything I've been talking about.  I'll call it my "Ask A Dumbass" segment, or something along those lines.  Write me a glowing review on iTunes, and let me know about your thoughts via email or comment.  I'm looking forward to hearing from you.  My theme music is "My Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton, check him out at jonathancoulton.com.  I'll catch you next time on The Dumbasses Guide To Knowledge.


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